June 10, 2012
Year B, Proper 5
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin….”
I love it when Jesus gets all fired up. And here, today, we are at the climax of the first act of Jesus’ life as told by St. Mark. Or as Ched Meyers, a noted Catholic Bible scholar calls it, the climax of Jesus’ “first direct action campaign.”
Mark is fantastic. He starts out bang – bang – bang. Jesus is baptized by John, starts calling disciples, and begins healing and preaching. His popularity grew and soon throngs of people crowded around Him wherever he went and whenever He taught. (Remember the paralytic being lowered through the ceiling because they could not get to the door? That is in Mark 2. He was popular.) His popularity was such that the Pharisees, here called the “Scribes” had gotten wind of Him, and came to challenge Him; first about eating while others fasted, then for healing the man with the withered hand in the Synagogue on the Sabbath. After that healing the text reads, “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” Right off the bat, the pressure was on, and rising.
So in this heightened state of anxiety, Jesus makes his way home and we are in our passage for today. First, his family comes. They had heard people saying that he had “gone out of his mind,” and they wanted him to come home. Imagine if your son or sister or cousin, whatever, went from being a mild-mannered, I don’t know, carpenter maybe, to being the messianic leader of an apocalyptic anti-imperial cult? The end is near, repent and believe. There were a lot of these guys running around at that time, messianic figures, prophets and holy men, revolutionaries (like Barabbas). We might appreciate their words and admire their leadership, but no one wants to be related to a religious wacko or a revolutionary. It messes up family systems. I can imagine His family saying, “For God’s sake, please come home with us before you get yourself in real trouble.”
Then the Pharisees come… The stakes get higher. And they accuse him of being possessed, a grave accusation because it never works out well for those accused of demonic anything. This climax reveals the truly revolutionary Jesus. The non-compliant Jesus. The breaker of convention. The bringer of things new. With political acumen that is the envy of Karl Rove, Jesus turned everything on its head. Attack the strength, right? Isn’t that the Rovian way? At the end of this first act, two strengths were apparent that stood in the way of Jesus fulfilling his vocation: family and Temple.
It was a kinship society. Everything was based upon family and familial networks of relationships. Your ability to survive in that society was based upon family. I am not going to get too deep into the kinship aspect of this passage today. It is Father’s day next week and it seems imprudent to preach on family loyalty as an affront to God between Father’s and Mother’s Days, though E.O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Man should be put in conversation with this passage. In any case, we are off of kinship and back to kingship.
What the Temple (and the kingship it represented) did was provide the framework (the law and ritual) within which family systems and the entire civil society operated. The Romans knew this. They were smart imperialists and let Herod and the Sanhedrin continue to rule as client governments. They let the Temple operate in almost al of its splendor. Unlike we Americans who summarily dismissed the entire Iraqi army when we invaded, leaving an embittered, highly trained and unemployed (read immanently available) foe to contend with, the Romans kept their friends close and their imperial conquests even closer. In this passage in St. Mark’s Gospel, Jesus takes both of these forces on, saying no: kinship and kingship are not what is most important, God is. (This is exactly, exactly what Samuel said in our Hebrew Bible passage for today).
Kinship and Kingship. This is what Jesus faced. Both potential sources of tyranny. Both with real power in everyone’s lives. And this brings us to the heart of this morning’s passage. The “house divided” stuff… Jesus is being an aggressive debater. The Pharisees said that He cast out demons by the authority of demons and Jesus pointed out that that is silly; demons don’t cast out demons. And binding the strong man? Jesus was alluded to as the stronger man by John the Baptist, and the stronger man needs to contain, bind the householder, the Temple, and do what needs doing. But unforgiveable sins? Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? What is that all about?
Literally, what Mark put together here was a declaration that those who oppose Christ, who speak against His message, who equate His ministry with the work of Satan, are guilty of an unforgiveable sin. If the Word and Work of Jesus were the work of the Holy Spirit, then to say “He has Beelzebub…,” that his work was demonic in nature… that is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. “Do not doubt me little men,” is what he is saying, “I speak for the Holy Spirit and to speak against that is unforgiveable.” In that moment, in that specific exchange this is what Jesus is talking about, “Do not doubt me,” but right here and right now, how does this matter to us?
Mistaking the devil’s work for God’s? We do that all the time. And the devil is not pitchfork and horns; by “devil” or “Satan” we mean the dark side of human nature, willful distance from God and light and doing what is right. And constantly we are deceived (or deceive ourselves) that we are doing what is right when its not. I think of the rhetoric around tax cuts for the wealthy, the rising-tide-lifts-all-ships malarkey… sounds good, divinely compassionate even, but it is a lie, it is the work of the evil one that convinces us that the most privileged among us reneging on their social contracts is good for the whole. We constantly mistake Satan’s work for God’s; but of course we do, that’s how Satan works, trickery, appealing to our self-interest, laying out false paths of least resistance, tempting the lesser angles of our nature. But mistaking God’s will for evil, calling the movement of the Holy Spirit the work of the Devil, actively working against that which is actually a right and a good and joyful thing… now that is blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, that is what tells us is unforgiveable.
Knowing what is right and doing the other thing; this is the primary site of sin against the Holy Spirit. And this is not so much an individual issue: “I know I should not have a third cupcake, but…” It is not that. If it were, Heaven would be empty and somewhere else would be standing room only. But rather I think of the bus tour that a group of Roman Catholic nuns just launched to make a case of heath care for all. Pretty revolutionary: everyone should have medical care when they need it. Well, they drew the attention of the Holy See and have been officially censured, being directed to spend more time working against contraception and abortion and less time working for the poor. As one nun said, “it is a badge of honor to be accused of working too hard for the poor.” And the Holy See has again earned a very different sort of badge.
Why is this kind of blasphemy so bad, unforgiveable, even? Well, look back to the scene. Jesus would have been surrounded by a mass of people. Rough people, by most standards. He was always surrounded by rough folks, the subaltern: the diseased, the homeless and destitute, the possessed (by demons or mental illness), prostitutes, traitors and collaborators, every sort of person living on the fringes of society, every sort of untouchable. They approached him with open eyes and ears and hearts to match their open hands and empty stomachs. And they approached Him as a friend, teacher, a Messiah. The ones who stood outside, though, on the edges throwing barbs and accusations, claiming expertise on things religious, denying the power of His work… the clean, the educated, the empowered… the inability, or more even, the unwillingness to know or learn the difference between the Holy Spirit and the demonic, the unwillingness to even try to discern the will of God; that is the problem. That is the unforgiveable sin.
If it gives life; if it heals; if it makes children genuinely happier and healthier and helps big people get along better, to love more and deeper and more complexly; if it leaves only footprints and takes only memories; if it does no harm… you have to, you have to pay attention. If it does otherwise, you can bet it did not come from God. To think that war can be holy or even just, to deny the changes afoot on in our Earth systems, to even claim the justice of austerity that doesn’t demand the greatest sacrifice from those who have the most to give as well as are most to blame… all I can say is that unforgivablity leaves marks that lasts a long time.
I will end with a poem by the great Jesuit ere-do-well, Daniel Berrigan:
For every 10,000 words
there’s a deed
head down, unborn
Words can’t make it happen
They only wave it away
Yet Child, necessary one
Unless you come home to my hands
Why hands at all?
Your season your cries
are their skill